My Mother had a few collections, one of which was Belleek China, specifically the shell pieces. Belleek was (and still is) made in Ireland from the mid 19th Century and they produced a very fine, nearly translucent bone china, some of which was moulded into extremely beautiful and fine pieces of china that incorporated coral and shells.
Belleek used beautiful lustre glazes in their pieces - usually on the inside of the shells, or to highlight a contrast form, such as a branch of coral used as a handle.
As with any china, there are degrees of desirability relating to age - Belleek has a mark underneath, Green or blue is a recently made piece, whereas a Black mark is older and therefore more valuable.
To find a complete teaset these days would be quite extrodinary - the nature of the china, it's fineness and delicacy means that you can generally only find parts of tea sets, but even so, the beauty of the individual pieces make them highly collectible.
Shells have always inspired design. There was a particular mania for them during the Regency period, and you can see that in their use of shell motifs commonly found on furniture. Beautiful shell grottos or follies were often constructed in the grounds of stately homes at this time, as well as those examples of shell grottos such as the mysterious one found in Margate in Kent in 1836, pictured below.
I've always loved shells, and used to spend many hours at our beach house in my childhood collecting and categorising shells with my mother in the long Summer holidays, and these memories are quite happily intertwined with her china collection as almost one and the same. In a similar way to our beachcombing, I can remember trawling antique shops with her and she'd always have her eye out for a new piece of Belleek, if found it would be pounced upon - the disappointment she would have if it was "just a green mark" stamped on the bottom, but unable to resist buying it anyway.
Shells were not always just decoration for a beach side home as we think of them today, but were part of the collecting of natural curiosities: of taxidermy butterflies and beetles, of botanical illustrations, feathers and minerals, of fossilised ammonites - these things were all the rage during the 18th and 19th Centuries as the knowledge of the formation of our world and the creatures within it were being enlightened by Science. Certainly these little treasures in china have a lasting pull to them, outshining other, more valuable pieces of china and shimmering with their lustre and delicacy in the darkness of a cabinet.
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